word Oriya is an anglicised version of Odia which itself is
a modern name for the Odra or Udra tribes that inhabited the
central belt of modern Orissa. Orissa has also been the home
of the Kalinga and Utkal tribes that played a particularly
prominent role in the region's history, and one of the earliest
references to the ancient Kalingas appears in the writings
of Vedic chroniclers. In the 6th C. BC, Vedic Sutrakara Baudhayana
mentions Kalinga as being beyond the Vedic fold, indicating
that Brahminical influences had not yet touched the land.
Unlike some other parts of India, tribal customs and traditions
played a significant role in shaping political structures
and cultural practices right up to the 15th C. when Brahminical
influences triumphed over competing traditions and caste differentiation
began to inhibit social mobility and erode what had survived
of the ancient republican tradition.
early in Kalingan history, the Kalingas acquired a reputation
for being a fiercely independant people. Ashoka's military
campaign against Kalinga was one of the bloodiest in Mauryan
history on account of the fearless and heroic resistance offered
by the Kalingas to the mighty armies of the expanding Mauryan
empire. Perhaps on account of their unexpected bravery, emperor
Ashoka was compelled to issue two edicts specifically calling
for a just and benign administration in Kalinga.
Mauryan rule over Kalinga did not last long. By the 1st C.
BC, Kalinga's Jain identified ruler Kharavela had become the
pre-eminent monarch of much of the sub-continent and Mauryan
Magadha had become a province of the Kalingan empire. The
earliest surviving monuments of Orissa (in Udaigiri near Bhubaneshwar)
date from his reign, and surviving inscriptions mention that
Prince Kharavela was trained not only in the military arts,
but also in literature, mathematics, and the social sciences.
He was also reputed to be a great patron of the arts and was
credited with encouraging dance and theater in his capital.
the bravery of the Kalingas became legendary, and finds mention
in the Sahitya Darpan, it is important to note that a hereditary
warrior caste like the Kshatriyas did not take hold in the
region. Soldiers were drawn from the peasantry as needed and
rank in the military depended as much on fighting skills and
bravery as on hereditary factors. In this (and other) respects,
Oriya history resembles more the history of the nations of
South East Asia, and may have been one of the features of
Oriya society that allowed it to successfully fend off 300
years of raids initiated by numerous Islamic rulers untill
the 16th century.
Crafts and Trade
to it's vast mineral resources, metallurgy developed quite
naturally in ancient Orissa and may have been an additional
factor in catapulting the region to considerable importance
during the iron age. Iron tools were used in agricultural
production, digging irrigation canals, stone-quarrying, cave
excavation and later monumental architecture. Rice cultivation
got a particular fillip and during the iron age irrigation
works from Orissa spread to the regions of ancient Andhra
and Tamil Nadu around 300 BC (See M.S. Randhawa: A history
of agriculture in India, Vol. 1. New Delhi.) Orissa also became
a major steel producing centre and steel beams were extensively
used in the monumental temples of Bhubaneshwar and Puri.
a coastal region, maritime trade played an important role
in the development of Oriya civilization. Cultural, commercial
and political contacts with South East Asia, particularly
Southern Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia were especially extensive
and maritime enterprises play an interesting part in Oriya
folk-tales and poetry. Historical records suggest that around
the 7th C. AD, the Kongoda dynasty from central Orissa may
have migrated to Malaysia and Indonesia. There is also evidence
of exchange of embassies with China. Records of Oriya traders
being active in the ports of South East Asia are fairly numerous
and in his descriptions of Malacca, Portuguese merchant Tome
Pires indicates that traders from Orissa were active in the
busy port as late as the 16th C.
is evidence to suggest that trade contact between Eastern
India and Thailand may date as far back as the 3rd or 4th
C BC. Himanshu Ray (The Winds of Change - Buddhism and the
Maritime Links of Early South Asia) suggests that at least
eight oceanic routes linked the Eastern Coast of India with
the Malayan pensinsula, and after the Iron Age, metals (such
as iron, copper and tin), cotton textiles and foodstuffs comprised
the trade. She also suggests that the trade involved both
Indian and Malayo-Polynesian ships. Archealogical evidence
from Sisupalgarh (near Bhubaneshwar) in Orissa suggests that
there may also have been direct or indirect trade contacts
between ancient Orissa and Rome dating to the 1st-2nd C AD
(or possibly earlier). The chronicles of Huen Tsang refer
to Orissa's overseas contacts in the 7th C, and by the 10th
C, records of Orissa's trade with the East begin to proliferate.)
agricultural production combined with a flourishing maritime
trade contributed to a flowering of Orissan arts and crafts
especially textiles. Numerous communities of weavers and dyers
became active throughout the state perfecting techniques like
weaving of fine Muslins, Ikat, Sambalpuri and Bomkai silks
and cottons, applique and embroidery. Orissa was also known
for it's brass and bell metal work, lacquered boxes and toys,
intricate ivory, wood and stone carvings, patta painting and
palm leaf engraving, basket weaving and numerous other colorful
crafts. Often, decorative techniques relied on folk idioms
as in the painted, circular playing cards known as Ganjifas.
Cuttack became the centre for lace-like exquisite silver filigree
work, (known as Tarakashi) when Orissa was brought under Mughal
Language and Idealogy
Buddhism and Jainism played an important role in the cultural
and philosophical developments of early Oriya civilization.
Most Buddhist and Jain texts were written in Pali-Prakrit
and the Prakrita Sarvasva, a celebrated Prakrit grammar text
was authored by Markandeya Das, an Oriya. Kharavela's Hatigumpha
inscription is in Pali, leading to the speculation that Pali
may have been the original language of the Oriya people.
the 7th C. AD, Brahminism had also become influential, especially
in the courts and Hiuen Tsang (the well-known Chinese chronicler)
observed how Buddhist Viharas and Brahminic temples flourished
side by side. And although royal inscriptions of this time
were in Sanskrit, the most commonly spoken language was not,
and according to Hiuen Tsang appeared to be quite distinct
from the language of Central India, and may have been a precursor
of modern day Oriya.
even as the Bhauma Kings of the 6th-8th C issued edicts in
Sanskrit, they patronized numerous Buddhist institutions and
the art, architecture and poetry of the period reflected the
popularity of Buddhism in the region.
Orissa's Buddhism came to be modulated by strong Tantric influences,
while a more traditional Vedic and Brahminical version of
Hinduism was brought to Orissa by Brahmins from Kannauj. Shaivism
from the South was institutionalized in Puri. In addition,
the majority of Orissa's adivasis continued to practice some
form of animism and totem-worship. Unifying all these different
traditions was the Shiva-Shakti cult which evolved from an
amalgamation of Shaivism (worship of Shiva), Shaktism (worship
of the Mother Goddess) and the Vajrayana, or Tantric form
of Mahayana Buddism.
made possible this fusion was that apart from the formal distinctions
that separated these different religious and philosophical
trends, in practical matters, there was a growing similiarity
between them. Whereas early Buddhism and the Nyaya school
within Hinduism had laid considerable stress on rationalism
and scientific investigation of nature, later Buddhism and
the Shaivite schools both emphasized philosphical variants
of concepts first developed in the Upanishads, along with
mysticism and devotion. Tantrism had also developed along
a dual track - on the one hand it had laid emphasis on gaining
practical knowledge and a clear understanding of nature -
on the other, it too came steeped in mysticism and magic.
the same time, the Buddhist ethos had created an environment
where compromise was preferred to confrontation. This allowed
tribal deities and gods and goddesses associated with numerous
fertility cults to be integrated into the Hindu pantheon.
Tantric constructs also met with some degree of approval.
Tantrism emphasized the erotic as a means to spiritual salvation,
the culture of austerity and sexual abstinence that had pervaded
early Buddhism was replaced with an unapologetic embrace of
all that was erotic.
some other parts of India, Oriya society had not yet been
deeply differentiated by caste, and egalitarian values remained
well-ingrained amongst the peasant masses. Hence, any idealogy
that championed a hierarchical division of society would have
been unacceptable. The Shiva Shakti cult was a compromise
in that while it did not exclude social inequality, it did
not preclude social mobility either. In fact, the cult became
popular precisely because it articulated the possibility of
upward mobility through the acquisition of knowledge, skill
or energetic personal effort.
influences were of particular import for the survival of the
Yogini cults in Orissa. The Yogini cults concentrated on worship
of the shakti (female life force), with a belief in the efficacy
of magic ritual. In ancient texts, Yoginis are depicted as
consorts of Yogis, and like their male companions practiced
yoga to gain mastery over science and acquire magical powers.
Some tantric schools associated with the Yogini cults such
as the Kaula Marga prescribed Maithuna (sexual intercourse)
with outcast women or women of low caste as the most consummate
soul-lifting experience. Although Yogini cults were not unique
to Orissa, two out of four surviving Yogini temples are to
be found in Hirapur and Ranipur-Jharial.
Hirapur temple is ascribed to the Bhauma and Somavansi rulers
of Orissa (mid 8th - mid 10th C. AD) who were known for their
eclectic liberalism and noted for their patronage of philosophy,
art, architecture and literature.
the literature of the court and the intelligentsia was primarily
written in Sanskrit, and included a variety of commentaries
and theoretical treatises on religion, politics, art and literature
as well as reworks of the epics, popular literature in Oriya
initially focused on folk tales, ballades, creation myths,
devotional songs, love poetry and erotica.
in the 15th century, the Gangas who were patrons of many of
Orissa's monumental temples were defeated by Kapilendra Deva,
who rose from the ranks to found the Surya dynasty. It was
in his reign that Sarala Das wrote a popular Oriya version
of the Mahabharatha. Sarala Das arose from a peasant family
and took his name from the goddess Sarala who was worshipped
in his village in the district of Cuttack. He described himself
as an unschooled 'Shudra' and became popularly known as Shudra-muni.
Although the broad themes his Mahabharatha match other traditional
versions, there is much that was original and written with
a popular sensibility. His version knitted in local folk tales
and ballads, and incorporated the ethical and moral values
then embraced by the artisan class and peasantry.
Chandi Purana, also written by Sarala Das referred to Yoginis
as forms of the Devi or the Supreme Goddess illustrating the
continued popular appeal of the Yogini cults in Orissa's coastal
what emerged in Orissa from the 9th century on was a heady
cocktail of mystical and practical currents that allowed for
a certain degree of social mobility and provided space for
ordinary peasants to make contributions to popular literature
stimulated the popularity of reading and since there were
no taboos against learning Oriya, literacy spread in the villages
and such popular literature developed a wide mass following.
A network of village libraries housed popular texts in neatly
transcribed versions. Illuminated manuscripts and illustrated
epics also became popular. By some accounts, literacy in many
villages reached 40% or more before the onslaught of colonial
of Oriya Civilization
first signs of decline in Oriya society came as the administrators
of the Ganga and Surya kings began to usurp undue privileges
and acquire a greater number of hereditary rights. At the
same time, religious affairs began to be dominated by the
Puri Brahmins who were instrumental in promoting ever increasing
ritual and unprecedented ceremonial pomp during religious
festivals. Tribal deities were slowly edged out as Brahminical
gods acquired supremacy. Social mobility declined and the
first concrete appearances of a formalized caste system began
to appear. The Patnaiks, Mahapatras, Nayakas and others who
had played a major role in the royal adminstration, along
with the Brahmins comprised the upper-caste elite as social
silting up of Orissa's major rivers in the 16th C. led to
a severe decline in maritime trade and may have further aggravated
socially regressive trends. Orissa also suffered decisive
defeats at the hands of Raja Man Singh (Akbar's military general)
and the Marathas, leaving it dismembered and particularly
vulnerable against the British who colonized it soon after
the victory in Bengal.
during Colonial Rule
much of India, colonial rule had a devastating impact on the
economic and social life of the Oriya people. Numerous categories
of crafts workers, especially weavers and dyers were bankrupted
and reduced to abject poverty. The peasantry suffered under
the burden of back-breaking taxes and forced unpaid labour.
But the Oriyas did not accept subjugation without putting
up heroic resistance. Just three years after British occupation,
Jayakrishna Rajguru - hereditary priest of the Gajapatis (or
the Rajas of Khurda) organized a revolt that ended in tragic
defeat and his public hanging at the hands of the British.
In 1818 there was another revolt when the entire state rose
up under the leadership of Bakshi Jagabandhu Vidyadhara of
Khurda. For six months the people of Southern Orissa were
practically freed from British rule but in the end the rebellion
was ruthlessly quelled and the aftermath was to be disastrous.
nobility was systematically decimated, the Paikas - the national
militia were disarmed and disinherited, and the peasantry
already reduced to virtual slavery. All administrative posts
not directly handled by the British were assigned to Bengalis
who were perceived to be more loyal to British rule. From
local police constables to assistant school teachers - Bengalis
were hired but Oriyas excluded. Bengali chauvinists in Calcutta
defended such a regime, some even going to the extent of demanding
that all Oriyas be taught in Bengali since Oriya was nothing
but a minor dialect of Bengali.
as urban Bengal received a few concessions like the founding
of universities and cultural societies - Orissa was reduced
to a minor outpost of the colonial empire - a cultural wasteland.
Orissa's future was now inextricably linked to the growth
of the national struggle in Bengal and the rest of the country,
and any hint of growth in the national movement naturally
drew enthusiastic support from nationalist-minded Oriyas.
independence brought about dramatic improvements in the lives
of all sections of the population, two centuries of damage
wrought by colonial rule could not be easily undone after
independence. As evident from recent census results, high
levels of poverty and illiteracy continue to dog the state.
Orissa to regain it's ancient vitality, it will require not
only greater sympathy from other Indians but a conscious programme
of affirmative action from the centre that promotes mass education
and employment opportunities so that Orissa can fully join
the Indian mainstream as a vibrant and equal member of the